When 7-Year-Olds Are In Charge

Imagine this: You’re around 7 years old. You are in a classroom. Your teacher asks you to come up to the blackboard to spell a word: Antidisestablishmentarianism. You’ve never heard of it, and have no idea how to spell it. How do you feel? Probably embarrassed at your lack of spelling chops, humiliated that you have to expose your ignorance, angry that you’re being put on the spot, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

Fast forward. You’re now an adult, in a business meeting. The boss has been hearing from the same three people for half an hour and needs a new perspective on the thing they’re discussing. They (I’m going to say ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ because it’s easier and I don’t want to imply all bosses are either ‘he’ or ‘she’ by picking one. I’m sorry for the singular/plural disagreement.) call on you. How do you feel? Maybe you don’t think anyone’s idea is particularly good, but you don’t have a better one to offer. Maybe you haven’t been listening because it’s been the same stuff over and over, and you’re thinking about lunch. Chances are good that your inner 7-year-old will take over – you’ll feel embarrassed to be put on the spot, humiliated that you have nothing to offer, angry that you had no warning, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

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The thing is, the boss had the best of intentions. They wanted to hear from more people, get more ideas, even the beginning of an idea to start a new conversation. But the person being called on is suddenly in fight/flight/freeze mode and can’t come up with anything intelligent to say. Everyone feels frustrated. No ideas come out. Another meeting wasting more time with no outcome.

Does this sound familiar? I know my inner 7-year-old comes out at times. Often when I need to do something very adult and responsible like call clients or speak on stage. I feel afraid and embarrassed and very, very young. It can be a real challenge to remember that I’m an adult now, that I’ve got this, that my inner child is safe, and my adult self can handle whatever comes my way.

In the meeting example above, often the person being put on the spot doesn’t have the chance to collect themselves before needing to respond. What can a meeting group do to help them out?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all, treat all questions and comments with respect and lightness. That is – if the boss yells at people for asking dumb questions, no one will ask questions. If group members grumble that their precious time is being wasted answering dumb questions, no one will ask questions. Then, when a single question could change the course of the company, no one will ask it and the company could go under. It really is that dire. Every question needs to be treated with respect – no put-downs, no grumbles, have a real honest desire to answer seriously. However, some questions are veiled grumbles or put-downs themselves, and these don’t need to be taken seriously. But you can’t put them down either, or the more 7-year-old-inclined of the group will retreat. So humor and compassion are key.

Next, reassure the person who is staring at you like a deer in the headlights that their answer isn’t life or death. Ask them to start a conversation, not have complete answers. That’s what the team is there for – to come up with a stronger answer together than anyone can do on their own. Is anything feeling off for you? Do you have any concerns? What sounds right about this plan? In your experience, will this work? Tell us about your doubts. We can help flesh it all out.

Note how different this is from: if you see a flaw in the plan, it’s your responsibility to fix it. Or, if you think there’s something wrong, what do you think is the right thing? These types of responses make people much less likely to say anything. Too much pressure, too much responsibility, too much extra work.

Another strategy: assume any problem or mistake is just data, not failure. People do NOT like to fail. Having one’s mistakes scrutinized is very painful and likely to bring out the 7-year-old in us. Having one’s mistakes seen as information about what works and what doesn’t takes some of the sting out of it. And seeing that data as a piece of a new brainstorming session can help move it into a positive new idea.

Leaders who are sensitive to the emergence of our inner 7-year-olds can make a world of difference to the people who follow them. People who assume everyone around them is as tough as a Navy Seal will squash new ideas left and right. People are just grown-up little kids, at least some of the time, and having our inner children be respected and not humiliated will bring out loyalty and great new ideas. I pinky promise.

Vulnerable Post

Hi everyone, I want to share something somewhat vulnerable with you today.

I’m really excited about the work that I do. I get to help people be heard, show up fully, add creativity and innovation to their organizations, feel valued, and ultimately change the world. A one-degree shift in direction can take you miles and miles away from your original destination, so the shift from being quiet to speaking up can make a profound difference in a person’s life.

The reason I care so deeply whether people get heard or not is that I grew up not feeling heard and afraid to speak up. From birth, when I was put into an incubator (my twin brother and I were 5 weeks premature), I have been looking for a way to connect with people and not finding it. I found walls, not loving parents. So I stopped trying to connect.

In my growing up years, I tried very hard to be the person I thought my parents wanted me to be. It seemed to me that every time my insecurities or extra sensitivities got triggered, I was told to toughen up or brush it off. Every time my most tender parts got bruised, I felt like it was my fault for being this way and I’d better change. So I tried to become the person everyone seemed to think I should be. I stopped crying. I ate my feelings away. I tried so hard to be the person they seemed to want.

By the time I got to high school, the advice “just be yourself” was gibberish. I had no idea who I was, and I was pretty sure if the real me surfaced everyone would run away screaming. By college when I got a therapist, she said something about emotional connection and I said “what’s that?”.

The price for all this was pretty high. I was extremely depressed. I thought it was normal for teenagers to wake up not wanting to live in their own skin that day. Everyone said adolescence was tough – but apparently not everyone wanted to die. Thank all the powers that be that I found a good therapist before I acted on it!

When I entered the work world, I was in therapy, but I still didn’t know who I was, or how to speak up, or how to value my own opinions. I didn’t think my unformed and uncertain ideas could stand up to challenge or scrutiny, so I didn’t say them. Maybe I could have changed the course of my employers for the better, but I didn’t believe I was worth listening to.

I’m not there any more, but I remember what it was like. That is why I feel a bit vulnerable offering my services now. I would like to offer 15 free team engagement assessments before the end of the year. I am also looking for 15 places to do a free lunch-and-learn.

I care deeply about this work because how a person shows up can make a huge difference both in their own lives and in the trajectory of their business. I don’t do therapy, but I do help people think with their hands. I level the playing field so everyone has to think before speaking, and I make sure that everyone speaks. People leave feeling like their ideas and opinions were heard and integrated into the decisions that got made. Morale goes up. Engagement goes up.  Productivity goes up. Happiness goes up. People are more cooperative, more inclined to give extra effort to making their shared solution happen.

I don’t always like to admit how personal all this work is. Work should be business-like, right? But it’s deeply personal to me to get the quiet voices heard.

If you support my efforts to bring all voices to light, could you please forward this to anyone you know who is struggling with a team? Please help me find 15 teams to talk to for free about how well they are working together, and 15 businesses that want to have me give a free lunch-and-learn to help their teams grow. Before the end of the year we could change the world!

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

You’ll never live up to their expectations.

Who are you to show up in a big way? Just give up.

You haven’t succeeded yet, so you never will.

Have you ever had voices like that in your head? I have them today. I have a presentation later today with some people who could potentially send me a lot of business, so my gremlin voices are extra loud.

They won’t like you.

You don’t have enough experience.

You always freeze. You’ll never be able to answer all their questions.

I know a secret about these voices – they are trying to protect me. They are trying to keep me in my place in my tribe, so I won’t lose tribal support and end up alone and likely to be eaten by a lion. They are trying to prevent extreme discomfort by keeping me in my comfort zone. And I appreciate their efforts! Only thing is, they’re a little too zealous.

I hope you’re not late with all that traffic.

You look frumpy in that dress.

You always forget something you need.

Here is my tactic for today:  Thank you gremlin voices! It’s so nice to know you are always there to keep me safe. I really appreciate your efforts. Only thing is, I don’t need you right now. I’ve got this. I’ve done it before, I know what I’m talking about, I’m an adult. You know what would be really helpful? Instead of tearing me down, build me up. Tell me all the things that could go right, not wrong. When I hear you start to talk, I’m going to make sure what you’re saying is helpful. OK?

No one wants to hear what you have to say. – Actually, I was invited to speak because they do want to hear what I have to say!

Your insights don’t matter. – Really? The last group I talked to thought my insights were helpful and even profound.

What makes you think you can succeed this time? – Well, I’ve been improving and learning and working for a while; now I have the support, confidence, experience, ability, systems, and knowledge  I need to thrive. And when I thrive, I can help so many more people! It’s win – win – win!

My gremlins start to shift into cheerleaders when I do this. I stop hearing the voices of everyone who has doubted me, and start hearing the voices of those who believe in me.

You don’t let anything stop you.

You have such a big heart.

Your smile lights up a room.

You are courageous and keep showing up.

You care so deeply about the people you help.

You got this!

People tend to find what they look for. What we pay attention to, grows. I refuse to let my doubts run the show today. I got this!

So do you.

Out Of Balance

My son is sick. He is being very dramatic about it, too, whining and flopping on chairs instead of standing up, sniffling loudly and moaning about how much his head hurts. I think I’m getting his cold, and I want to declare how icky and tired I feel too.

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What is interesting to me is how bad we feel because our bodies are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. The symptoms we have are there because our bodies are fighting off infection, and the runny nose, fever, and cough are there to get the invaders out of the body or burn them to death. Our bodies feel out of whack because there has been an extreme test that requires an extreme reaction before we reset to normal.

It’s an odd perspective to say we feel icky because everything is going right. It sure feels like something is terribly wrong – and I suppose the invading germs are wrong – but our bodies reactions are exactly right.

What if this were a metaphor? Is there another place where things are out of balance and feel wrong? I’m tempted to say that the current political climate feels terrible because a poison has been introduced – hate, intolerance, injustice, etc. – and the tumult that is resulting – protests, marches, lawsuits, rioting, etc. – is the body politic’s response to the disease. It is absolutely the right thing to happen, and should happen more, to drive the poison out of our system. Even thought things feel scary and dangerous, it’s more dangerous not to fight back.

Each of us is our own white blood cell attacking intolerance in our own environment. Each of us has the option to speak up when we see injustice in action. We are stronger when there are more of us. No one can do our job for us – we are an army of individuals addressing what we see as we see it.

Sometimes we will get things wrong. Some of us might interpret others actions incorrectly, or through fear-tinted lenses, and attack the wrong people. Other times we might not be as aggressive as we should be because we fear for our own safety or we don’t know what to do or say. At times we will just sit down and give up because it all feels so uncomfortable and out of whack. We may complain more than we act. All of that is normal, and human, and forgivable, as long as we get back into the fight.

The health of the entire nation is at risk, here. It’s not just the immigrants, or people of color, or Muslims, or whatever other group has been targeted. The culture of fear and hatred this poison is spreading will harm all of us. We can’t pretend not to be affected, even if we are not the group being targeted for prison or deportation. All of us need to fight to the best of our abilities for compassion, tolerance, kindness, compromise, mediation, coming together, helping each other, finding ways to live together in peace and justice. Isn’t that the American way?

Power And Force

I was out of town when the Charlottesville events happened last week. I have been spending some time processing what has happened, and I have something to say.

Most of my writing assumes good will on everyone’s part, but cluelessness at times. That is, I don’t think people want to oppress others, and that they do want to know if they are doing something that keeps others from speaking up. Sometimes, however, people are very explicit in how they try to keep others down. Right now, white men are marching with torches claiming they are superior, they won’t be replaced by any minority (Jews, people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, etc.) – and they are using violence to intimidate people into letting them have their way.

We also have a president who advocates violence and bigotry, and this is allowing people to speak up about their own bigotry in ways they had to hide in the past. What the person at the top says makes a difference all the way down the line.

I think that all of the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc, is about power. There are some white men who are afraid of losing power to people they think are beneath them, and they will do anything to keep their power. They will kill, and threaten, and beat up, and elect powerful people who think the way they do.

These people seem to think that power is a zero sum game. That is, there is a finite amount, and if someone else gets more, that means they get less. They also view the world in a very hierarchical way – everyone is either one-up or one-down from others. I don’t agree with this world view. I think that everyone is equal, no one is better or worse than anyone else, and that everyone can hold personal power without taking away from anyone else’s power. However, power is not the same as force. That power is personal power to speak our own truths. It is power to bring multiple points of view into the world and work out how they can coexist. It is power to build, not destroy, and to understand, not suppress.

I’m disturbed by the number of people who have forgotten what every kindergarten teacher tries to impart – we are all in this world together, we need to share, we need to help each other, we are all worthy of love and attention, and we all need to let other people have love and attention too. There is enough love and attention for everyone. We don’t need to take it away from others to get it for ourselves. No one always gets their own way. We need to compromise to be able to live together. Force just makes people angry and resentful. Hate begets hate – and help begets help.

I think the world is stronger with everyone’s viewpoints in it. I think the world is better when more people are able to be fully present and alive and seen and heard and valued. I will fight bigotry and hatred with love and compassion, and continue to insist that every voice must be heard. Together, we are stronger.

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Death of a Pet

My cockatiel died this week. She was 22 years old, with a life expectancy of 12-15 years, so she lived a long life. I’d like to think it was a happy one, too. Her death has me thinking about life and death, and I want to share some thoughts with you.

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I considered writing about what you are doing with your one precious life. I thought about writing about holding your dear ones close and telling them you love them. I even pondered writing about unconditional love. Instead, I want to write about prey animals.

My bird was a small bird, and in the wild she would have been preyed on by larger animals. So she was wired to not show weakness. She knew that looking weak could mean being singled out of the flock, so she never told me when she was hurting.

I knew something was up because the feathers where she broke her wing 17 years ago were growing in wrong, and when she preened them she squawked. But I have no idea if she hurt the rest of the time. If I knew, I could have done something about it. I could have taken her to the vet, gotten medicine, gotten work done on the amputated tip of her wing, something that could give her relief. But she didn’t tell me.

When I was a kid, I didn’t tell people either. I tried, but got shut down so many times I figured I was safer not saying anything. I was a sensitive kid, and a lot of things hurt me. I kept being told to toughen up, not be so sensitive, get over it, etc. So I stopped admitting things hurt. I stopped showing up, because saying the wrong thing could get me attacked. I felt like keeping my head down was the safest thing to do.

It may have been the safest option at the time – it’s hard to tell now, and I don’t want to argue with anything that let me survive. Now, however, not showing up has some pretty big costs. It means losing a part of myself. Not offering my gifts to the world. Not being seen, not being befriended, not being loved. I am an adult, no longer a prey animal, now big enough to do hunting of my own. I don’t want to give anyone else the feeling they aren’t safe around me – but I also don’t want to lose my voice again. I will stand strong.

So, this week I am saying goodbye to my long time friend and pet. She taught me a lot about birds. I would wake up early to take her out of the cage and let her walk on me, peck at my freckles, turn her head so I could scratch all the right places on her head and neck. I miss her. And I honor her by being the most vivid, honest, biggest, brightest, most courageous me that I can be. I love you Toby. Rest in peace.

Revising Our Thinking (Advanced Problem Solving)

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This quote has always struck me as both wise and difficult to do something about. On the one hand, the thinking we have now is what led us to consequences, perhaps unintended, that are causing problems. On the other hand – how do you change how you think? Thoughts are just there, like air.

Actually, it turns out that thoughts can change. I think this is fascinating stuff.

First step – pause. If there’s no pause, there’s no chance to question. We believe what we think because it’s always there, informing everything we experience. If we can take a breath, stop the knee-jerk reaction, pause before moving ahead, it gives us a chance to do something different.

One way to practice the pause is to meditate. One school of meditation suggests that you notice what you are thinking, and then let it go. Aim for total quiet in the brain. Thoughts and feelings will come through, and rather than getting snagged in them, just let them pass. This takes practice, and honestly, doesn’t work all the time. When I meditate, I spend plenty of time thinking. But even a little practice in letting the thought be separate from the thinking of it helps create a pause. Seriously, even 3 minutes once a week.

Second step – question. I’m going to quote the wikipedia page about Byron Katie for this:

Byron Katie’s method of self-inquiry, The Work, consists of four questions and what she calls turnarounds, which are ways of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The questions are: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without the thought?

Contemporary neuroscience identifies a particular part of the brain, sometimes called “the interpreter,” as the source of the familiar internal narrative that gives us our sense of self. This discovery, based on solid experimental work, show that we tend to believe our own press releases.

If we can question our own thoughts, we can start to figure out where they might be right, where they might be wrong, where they might be more compassionate, where they might be more expansive, etc.

Pause, and question. How often do we do this in our own lives?

I’m going to tell you a parenting story. My son has sensory processing issues, which means he’s sensory seeking a lot of the time. He was playing with a toy on a string, enjoying the feeling of it swinging around his head, swinging against furniture, swirling around on the floor and against the edge of another toy. All that swinging was driving me crazy. I saw the floor being scratched. I saw the toy about to hit things on shelves, about to sweep the papers off my desk, about to hit me. I kept asking him to stop, and he didn’t stop. I was getting madder and madder.

This time, hallelujah and hooray, I remembered to pause, and question. I took a break, went outside, and asked myself what was going on. I helped myself remember that my kid gets hooked by how things feel. He wasn’t continuing to swing the damn thing around in order to piss me off, he was doing it because he liked how it felt. It was hard for him to stop because it fed something in his brain. I had a choice how I responded. I’ve tried yelling, I’ve tried grabbing the toy away, and these things don’t usually end well. What other choices did I have?

Once I calmed down, I went back inside. I told him he could use the toy on a string in a certain area, but not in others, because he could damage things. He agreed, and after a while was done swinging it around and moved on to something else. Relationship preserved, boundaries enforced with kindness, no yelling. What a difference. Pausing, and questioning.

I think it can be unnerving to be still and open to new ideas. It’s much easier and more comfortable to just be Right. All. The. Time. But we can’t solve our problems with our current thoughts and frames of reference. If we are open to new ideas, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. It’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a vessel for new ideas flowing in. (That may be another blog post.) But how wonderful to find a new solution!

Where have you paused, and questioned? What happened?